In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications,with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

Hebrews 5:7-10

Repentance or Punishment

The vicarious penitent theory is the idea that Christ made atonement for us by vicariously repenting on our behalf. Although this theory was popularised by C.S. Lewis in his Mere Christianity, however Oliver Crisp in his article Non-Penal Substitution, notes that the theory has its origins in, of all people, Jonathan Edwards. To quote a passage from his Satisfaction for Sin:

…it is requisite that God should punish all sin with infinite punishment; because all sin, as it is against God, is infinitely heinous, and has infinite demerit, is justly infinitely hateful to him, and so stirs up infinite abhorrence and indignation in him. Therefore, by what was before granted, it is requisite that God should punish it, unless there be something in some measure to balance this desert; either some answerable repentance and sorrow for it, or other compensation.

(italics mine)

Thus in this passage Jonathan Edwards actually raises the intriguing suggestion that the alternative to God punishing sin is if there is something which can “balance this desert” such as “some answerable repentance and sorrow for it”. To be clear, Jonathan Edwards doesn’t actually believe that there is such an “answerable repentance” as he adds in the next line, “Now there can be no repentance of it, or sorrow for it, in any measure answerable or proportionable to the heinousness of the demerit of the crime”. However the reason which he gives for it is interesting, he argues that the crime is infinite yet “there can be no infinite sorrow for sin in finite creatures”.

Therefore to be clear, Jonathan Edwards himself did not espouse the vicarious penitent theory of the atonement. What he did however was to raise its possibility and the lines whereby such a theory could be developed. So while Edwards didn’t stop to ask why couldn’t there be such an answerable repentance, the Scottish theologian John Mcleod Campbell did. In his book The Nature of the Atonement, Campbell precisely developed Edwards’s other alternative, the idea that Christ, being the incarnate God-Man, did offer up a sort of “infinite sorrow” and an “answerable repentance” to make atonement for our sins.

The vicarious penitent theory therefore could properly be said to be “Anselmic”. St Anselm basically formulated the framework for subsequent Western thinking on the atonement, the framework being that sin was a violation of the divine honour and a disruption to the cosmic order which needed to be restored by a suitable offering or act. However Anselm did not argue for the penal substitution theory or the idea that Christ was “punished” in our stead. Remember for Anselm it is “aut poena aut satisfaction”, punishment or satisfaction, they are alternatives to one another. Anselm’s theory therefore vaguely argues that Christ’s righteous life and meritorious deeds “balanced out” the demerit of our sins, satisfied God’s justice and allowed God to forgive us our transgressions.  The vicarious penitent theory therefore identifies more specifically Christ’s repentance and sorrow as that righteous deed which is the ground for our forgiveness.

Perfecting our Repentance

The vicarious penitent theory has recently received a more systematic articulation by Richard Swinburne in his book Responsibility and Atonement. Swinburne identifies four acts whereby a wrong-doer maybe reconciled to someone whom he has wronged, that is, apology, repentance, reparation and penance. Apology is obvious enough, you acknowledge and confess your misdeeds to the one whom you have wronged. Repentance is whereby you distance yourself from your misdeed and denounce it with the firm intention of not doing it again. Reparation is something which you do to repair the harm which your misdeed has caused. The example commonly given is that if you’ve broken your neighbour’s windows, you can make reparation by fixing it or paying for its repair. Finally penance is what you do to demonstrate the sincerity of your repentance, in the windows case, you could buy a gift for your neighbour, in addition to fixing the windows, to demonstrate your sorrow. Swinburne is clear that this “penance” isn’t punishment, it’s just a bit of suffering or costly deed on your part to demonstrate your sorrow for your misdeed. For brevity I shall refer to the whole process as “penitence”.

The problem with mankind is that we are incapable of offering this sort of penitence. Although we can apologise and repent but because of our corrupt natures, our apology and repentance tends to be half-hearted and insincere. Our pride and capacity for self-justification tends to get in the way of a whole hearted confession and repentance of our sins. Furthermore, we owe God a sinless perfect life, however, there’s no way we can render that to God even with our best efforts because of our corrupt natures and wayward desires, so we have no way of making a complete reparation to God for the lives we’ve wasted or squandered in sin. Again the same reason holds for our inability to offer up an acceptable and sincere penance to God and cannot help but be tainted with insincerity and not a little hypocrisy, not forgetting the fact that we are unable to perfectly sorrow for our sins for we rarely realise the consequences of our actions.

Since mankind is unable to offer up the penitence acceptable to God, God sends instead his Son in human form to offer it vicariously on our behalf. Christ apologies to God on our behalf and makes perpetual intercessions for us, in the window’s case, it would be as if the father went in the stead of the son to apologise to the neighbour for his son breaking the windows and intercedes on his behalf. He makes reparation by undoing the harm caused by our sins through his ministry of charity and righteousness. Finally he offers up the perfect penance in suffering the consequences of our sins.

So how does these benefits flow down to us? By joining our imperfect penitence with the perfect penitence of Christ. This involves two aspects. First, we plead the name and penitence of Christ and offer them up to God as the basis for accepting our own imperfect penitence. This is the satisfactionary or justificationary aspect, whereby God is pleased to forgive us our sins with Christ as our representative or vicar who intercedes on our behalf and prays for us. The second aspect is that of a real union of our penitence with Christ’s, this is the sanctification aspect. Although we can do our own apology and repentance, due to our imperfections we join our faltering and half-hearted words of apology with Christ’s intercessions who will perfect them before the Father with his own confession on our behalf and thereby make them acceptable. While we imitate Christ’s example to undo some of the harm our sins have caused and make reparations, however our reparations, being imperfect, is joined to the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit in Christ whereby our deeds of righteousness are energised and increasingly perfected. Finally, we join our own sorrow for sin which but imperfectly grasps the consequences of our misdeeds with Christ who has a full and perfect understanding and empathy for it in his very own body.

Why did Jesus Suffer and Die?

If all God wanted was someone to make intercessions and to apologise on our behalf, couldn’t he just have the Son to just do that? Why was did he go through suffering and death instead?

Remember that one of the parts of penitence is penance, the sorrow for sin. We sorrow for what we have done and regret it when we realise the consequences and harm which our own deeds have put others through. Christ himself therefore suffered the full consequences of our sins, especially that of death and alienation from God, in his very own body, and in so having suffered, himself could truly and humanly sorrow for the full horror of human sin and wickedness. Also remember that Christ is also to make reparation for our misdeeds by offering a perfectly righteous life lived in a world of sin, temptation and evil. Thus Christ “learned obedience through what he has suffered”, and made reparations for our own squandered and wicked lives by obeying the Father through the Cross and unto the grave.

Conclusion: A Summary from C.S. Lewis

I believe that this theory has the advantage in that the atonement is wholly focused upon the human good. It’s focused isn’t about balancing some account book in the heavens or satisfying some need for vengeance or punishment. It is ultimately at its heart about humanity restored in righteousness. What God wants is ultimately our penitence and our return back to him and he is fully willing to forgive and receive us back if we should so turn back to him. Therefore the atonement is given precisely to facilitate and bring about this end, not to satisfy some impersonal heavenly sentence or accounting book.

If I may end with an summary from C.S. Lewis of the Vicarious Penitent theory:

Now what was the sort of “hole” man had gotten himself into?  He had tried to set up on his own, to behave as if he belonged to himself.  In other words, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.  Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor – that is the only way out of a “hole.”  This process of surrender – this movement full speed astern – is what Christians call repentance.  Now repentance is no fun at all.  It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie.  It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years.  It means undergoing a kind of death.  In fact, it needs a good man to repent.  And here’s the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly.  The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it.  The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person – and he would not need it.

Remember, this repentance, this willing submission to humiliation and a kind of death, is not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off of if He chose: it is simply a description of what going back to Him is like.  If you ask God to take you back without it, you are really asking Him to let you go back without going back.  It cannot happen.  Very well, then, we must go through with it.  But the same badness which makes us need it, makes us unable to do it.  Can we do it if God helps us?  Yes, but what do we mean when we talk of God helping us?  We mean God putting into us a bit of Himself, so to speak.  He lends us a little of His reasoning powers and that is how we think: He puts a little of His love into us and that is how we love one another.  When you teach a child writing, you hold its hand while it forms the letters: that is, it forms the letters because you are forming them.  We love and reason because God loves and reasons and holds our hand while we do it.  Now if we had not fallen, that would all be plain sailing.  But unfortunately we now need God’s help in order to do something which God, in His own nature, never does at all – to surrender, to suffer, to submit, to die.  Nothing in God’s nature corresponds to this process at all.  So that the one road for which we now need God’s leadership most of all is a road God, in His own nature, has never walked.  God can share only what He has: this thing, in His own nature, He has not.

But supposing God became a man – suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person – then that person could help us.  He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God.  You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man.  Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God’s dying, just as our thinking can succeed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence: but we cannot share God’s dying unless God dies; and he cannot die except by being a man.

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